"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

November 28, 2007

Leading From The Ground Up

How Civic Institutions Can Play a Pivotal Role in Improving Communities

The above headline and sub-head come from the lead article in the November newsletter of the Project for Public Spaces. The PPS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public places that build communities. They spoke with Partners for Livable Communities -a Washington D.C. based nonprofit that works on how cultural and civic organizations can step up to help improve life in America's neighborhoods- for the
article, Leading from the Ground Up. In light of the recent talk here in Northampton on 'best practices' as well as the redesign of Pulaski Park underway in committee, I wanted to highlight some text from this article as a little food for thought for our own community.

"...we also need to be careful about who we define as the community--the low-income track does not serve everybody. It isolates the immigrant community behind a vale of poverty, instead of as a culture of pride and significance that needs to be part of the larger community, on an equal basis."

"Cynthia Nikitin, vice-president in charge of PPS's Downtowns and Public Buildings program, stresses the importance of these kinds of public activities in strengthening communities. "The success of a public place is 80 percent programming," she points out. "A concert hall or YMCA would fail if it wasn't programmed. It's the same with public spaces. People won't just show up, as if by magic, when there's nothing to do there."

"Andrew Carnegie, the turn-of-the-20th- century steel magnate who amassed a huge fortune through tough-fisted business practices, also built 2500 public libraries around the world as a response to the widening class gap of his own era. The first Carnegie libraries were built with attractions like gymnasiums, boxing rings and swimming pools," [Robert McNulty, President of PLC notes,] "with the idea that it would attract people that you could then expose to books."

The PPS write, "A variety of organizations across the country are showing how civic and cultural organizations can play a central role in boosting their communities and challenging these social problems.

--A counterproductive town/gown tension erupted in San Jose, California, even though the campus of San Jose State University was adjacent to downtown. Local residents did not feel welcome on the campus and the positive potential of interaction was stymied. That all changed when a new central public library was built right on the university grounds.

--Arbitration hearings between landlords and tenants in San Jose are now held in park centers, places where low-income people feel more comfortable than the formal surroundings of city hall or a courthouse."

That last point particularly resonates with me. I often wonder how marginalized and/or vulnerable populations feel about visiting the police station, the court house, the Mayor's Office, etc... to express their opinions, voice a concern, or participate in a meeting. Particularly within earshot of individuals that one might view with an inherent distrust or fear of. I could imagine how intimidating and/or discouraging it might be to do so in that atmosphere.

The full article is here.

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